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Some questions about the Gates Foundation's new education push

The goals are great, as are the resources. But the new focus risks perpetuating some problems with testing and misses a chance to do more with poor kids in early grades.

There’s one thing sure about the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s renewed interest — or second look — at education, K-12 and beyond: the money will stimulate a vibrant debate.

It’s impossible to fault the foundation’s goal: Getting more children from disadvantaged families into and through college. As Melinda Gates said, quoted in The Seattle Times story by Linda Shaw: “America's long history of upward mobility is in danger . . . . A postsecondary credential is the best bridge between poor kids and good jobs." But a couple of points from the Shaw story raise questions that should be part of the debate.

First is the issue of learning standards. Shaw reports, “The foundation also wants to help lead efforts to create a national set of high-school learning standards, which will be shorter, tougher and clearer than states now have.” That’s essential, and the area where George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act utterly failed and was, in fact, a con job. By allowing each state to set its own standards it not only failed to create a national standard but let states with the lowest standards escape federal sanctions that were applied to states that tried to develop honest, rigorous tests. Washington has been victimized by this because the Washington Assessment of Student Learning, the WASL, is a relatively rigorous test when compared with others of its type elsewhere in the U.S. (That is, the WASL is good of its kind but not necessarily the right thing to do.)

In that light, the Gates Foundation’s plan to lead efforts to create national high school standards is the right goal. The worry though, is that the whole process, likely to be carried out under the umbrella of today’s prevailing educational philosophies, could lead to a national test something like the WASL, which is tragically unmoored from actual content, that thing we call knowledge. My hope is that Gates’ money will not be wasted reinventing the wheel. As I wrote last week suggesting a course for newly elected Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn, high school standards tests already exist. The SAT subject tests and the Advanced Placement program course-completion tests will do just fine. In fact, they’re just what we want, because they are based on course content, and they measure knowledge.

And knowledge is a cool thing. If you’ve acquired some, say an understanding of chemistry, you can apply “creative thinking” (the holy grail of today’s educators) to this knowledge, rub some facts and observations together and maybe come up with something new and useful. No amount of creative thinking will do this if you don’t know the subject.

For the other grade levels we can already turn to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, tests for which years of data already exist. More federal money to expand the NAEP would enable the WASL and its ilk to forever disappear from earth.

The second debatable issue in the Gates plan is its relative neglect of early school years. As Shaw wrote, “The Gateses however, don't plan to broaden their mission into elementary or middle schools, or expand what they're already doing in early-learning efforts. It's not that those efforts aren't important, they said, but they have to make choices.” That may not be the right choice for people of such influence.

Early learning work is, indeed, extremely important. But as long as children from low income families enter kindergarten and first grade with letter and number recognition and reading skills lower than those typical for kids from middle and upper middle class families they will be tragically handicapped. Schools face the huge burden of bringing low-income and English language learning kids up to parity by the end of third grade, fourth grade at the latest, or they are in the vast majority of cases, lost for life.

Getting all kids really reading by third grade is a task at which our schools routinely fail. And that failure is what leads to high drop out rates and stunted life chances for those poor readers who do manage to slip through high school. So, unless we intervene early and make third grade reading a Washington state and national standard (I think President-elect Obama gets this), the Gates-promoted high school program won’t have many more low-income kids ready for college than we do now.

Dick Lilly was a reporter for The Seattle Times and covered K-12 education there for nearly five years. He later served on the Seattle School Board from 2001-05. You can reach him in care of editor@crosscut.com


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